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Do you have knee osteoarthritis (OA) and are quietly avoiding exercise (whatever you were advised about it) because you fear it will make the pain worse?  Years ago, arthritis was treated with rest and immobilization.  Scientists have since learned that locking up the joints actually makes them worse.  The researchers have found a close link between how many steps people usually took in a day and their chance of getting problems.  The first randomized trial on the question finds the opposite to be true.  Exercise lessens pain.

Osteoarthritis affects many people as they get older, making their joints stiff and painful.  One of the most common places to get osteoarthritis is

side view of a couple walking on the beach

in the knee joint.  The knee joint bears more weight than any other joint in the body which is why it is the biggest joint.  This can make simple tasks such as walking, getting out of chairs and cars, and climbing stairs difficult.  A Dutch study of people with early symptomatic knee OA found that knee pain, lack of energy, difficulty in performing activities like climbing stairs, and fear of pain lead to activity evading over time[1].  First, you move less because it’s painful, then you begin to lose the ability to move.  It can become a vicious cycle.

Earlier studies have suggested that taking regular exercise can help lower the chance of these problems.  There’s a vast body of literature demonstrating that keeping the hips and knees moving, and the muscles around the joints strong, contributes greatly to protecting the joints and staving off additional damage caused by arthritis.  The new research, published in Arthritis Care & Research[2], suggests that a good starting point for physical activity would be 3,000 steps a day – an achievable target for any older adults with or at risk of knee OA.  For each additional 1,000 steps people took daily, their chance of these problems dropped by 16  to 18 percent.  The findings were similar when the researchers looked separately at people who had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, and also at those who had symptoms from their condition.

Having arthritis can affect walking, but by doing certain things you can make it a little easier.  Remember to start slowly, gradually increasing your workload.  If your goal is to walk 30 minutes a day, You may start with three 10-minute walks  adding on a little more time each walk until eventually you can complete one 30-minute walk. Wearing a device that counts your steps (a pedometer) helps you to tell how many steps you are doing, most mobile phones have Pedometer apps which are very helpful.  If you need to take more, making some changes to your daily routine can be helpful, such as using the stairs instead of a lift, or parking your car a little away from your destination.

[1] Holla JF, van der Leeden M, Knol DL, et al., Predictors and outcome of pain-related avoidance of activities in persons with early symptomatic knee osteoarthritis: A 5-year follow-up study. Arthritis Care Res (2014)

[2]    D. White, C. Tudor-Locke, Y. Zhang, R, Fielding, M. LaValley, D. Felson, K. Douglas Gross, M. Nevitt, C. Lewis, J. Torner, T.Neogi. Daily walking and the risk of incident functional limitation in knee OA: An observational study. Arthritis Care & Research, 2014.